Virtual reality is entering the art world with a bang, thanks largely to London-based Acute Art. Brian Noone profiles the VR producer and its incoming director, Daniel Birnbaum
There’s no time to think as you tumble through Anish Kapoor’s first virtual reality artwork, the 15-minute Into Yourself, Fall. Starting in a quiet forest, you descend through masses and fissures that recall the human body as well as subatomic particles and cavernous subterranean warrens, all the while shifting between peace and fear, contentment and dread. It is a prototypical Kapoor experience – all weighty, metaphysical rumblings and disconcerting proportions that shake one’s sense of self.
It’s only after you take off the headset that you remember where you are, that you remember the people around you, who have been watching you for those 15 minutes, and that you are thrust back into the fractured interactions of our hyper-kinetic, smartphone-addled universe that is so far removed from the intense, single-minded focus induced by VR.
This focus is what many artists wish viewers would give their work – when was the last time you spent more than a few minutes looking at a piece of art? – so it’s no surprise that Kapoor is not the first big-name artist to try his hand at the new technology. Nor will he be the last, thanks in part to Acute Art, a London-based firm that is nearly two years old but already stands tall among its competitors, the industry titan that has worked with Marina Abramović, Jeff Koons and Olafur Eliasson and where, come January, art world icon Daniel Birnbaum will take the creative helm, much to the confusion of his colleagues.
“There was, among many, total incomprehension,” says Birnbaum with glee, and it’s not hard to understand why they might feel that way. The Swede has a PhD in philosophy and has been a prominent critic and writer for nearly three decades; he directed the 2009 Venice Biennale; he headed Europe’s most
progressive art school, Städelschule, for several years (one of his students, Danh Vo, held a solo show at the Guggenheim in New York earlier this year to great acclaim); and most recently he has been the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm since 2010.
“I’ve worked with so many traditional art institutions, and I certainly haven’t exhausted the possibilities there,” he says, “but when it comes to VR, I am interested in the terra incognita nature of it – we really don’t know what it’s going to be.”
“It fulfils a lot of things that many artists want, an immersive aspect,” he continues. “You enter the space and you’re not looking at an object – you’re in it.” It is perhaps the medium’s most astonishing feature, this forgetting of the self. “You feel like a bit of a fool putting on all the equipment,” he says, “but you forget it once you are in it. It’s very, very convincing.”
But this creates, he notes, very different sorts of public spaces than the more traditional works of art: “One of the reasons why museums are attractive is that you go there to share things. You go there to have a date, or to fight with your friends about art, or to go have coffee and look at things. But it’s not quite the case with VR.”
So new is the medium, he argues, that this might be a feature rather than a problem: “I think it’s comparable to the introduction of film or digital possibilities or perhaps the video camera. The early years are always very interesting, very unexplored.” He cites Experiments in Art and Technology, a New York-based group in the 1960s that included artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage alongside engineers from Bell Labs, as the inspiration for what Acute Art might become. “The possibilities are endless,” he exclaims. “The first- generation of people making video, for instance, were sabotaging the medium rather than using it.”
The initial stirrings of Acute Art, which began in 2017, came from a similar enthusiasm for possibilities: “When we decided to set up Acute Art, there weren’t many other companies
working in this niche of using mixed reality to create artworks,” says Jacob De Geer, who co-founded the firm with his father. “I saw an opportunity to collaborate directly with artists, working with them to push the boundaries of their practice, supporting innovative artworks produced for this new medium.”
The finances of VR are one of the medium’s biggest question marks. There are galleries in New York and London selling works – London’s Gazelli Art House, to take one example, held its third selling exhibition in September – but Acute Art is focused on the creative side and can continue to do so for some time (De Geer sold his fintech start-up, iZettle, to PayPal for $2.2bn in May). And to some extent planning production according to profits “seems like a conservative step backwards,” says Birnbaum, though he acknowledges his privileged position in this respect: “Thankfully, I haven’t been asked to develop the financial model for this yet!”
Birnbaum’s Instagram feed is full of him introducing the medium to a range of personalities, from English artists Gilbert & George to American musician Pharrell Williams, and he reports exceptional enthusiasm for the sheer novelty of it: “The artists who want to try VR are there because they are curious, not because they want to grow their audiences or make money,” he says. “I think there’s a certain kind of purity to it at the moment.”
Speaking of Birnbaum, De Geer remarks that his “experience and creative vision are second to none, at once lucid, experimental and brave”. It’s an apt description of the Acute Art itself, which just moved into new quarters in one of central London’s grandest buildings, Somerset House, symbolically relevant as the former home of the Royal Academy, Britain’s bastion of traditional art.
“There are so many possibilities in connection with and separate from existing art,” says Birnbaum with enthusiasm, arguing that “it is very unattractive to think that museums disappear and we end up looking at art alone at home in our VR headsets in the future”. He points to the way VRandtraditionalartworktogether seamlessly in Laurie Anderson’s current installation at the Louisiana MuseumofArtinDenmark(until20 Jan), a feat that is matched in Rachel Maclean’s powerful commission at the Zabludowicz Collection in London (until 16 Dec).
“Looking beyond art,” he says, “games, architecture, entertainment, pornography – all these will be, and are already, in these VR and AR [augmented reality] spaces. And the question is: as this new technology changes our lebenswelt, what will there be to see? I’m sure there will be sports and rock music – and I hope also art. That’s what we’re trying to do.” acuteart.com
Departures, Q4, 2018